Authentic presence is the natural state of being unconditionally open and responsive in the world. Completely at ease and free from compulsive strivings of hope and fear, the unconditioned sanity of our true nature is always already present. The recognition and teaching of authentic presence is known by various names, including dzogchen, the innate perfection of all experience.
Buddhadharma and depth psychology each recognize that liberation from emotional and mental distress occurs through being present to the way things actually are rather than how we think they are. This involves befriending our existential vulnerability and releasing habitual self-defensive reactions of aggression, aversion, and avoidance that perpetuate unnecessary suffering.
Daring to be unconditionally present with ourselves and others presents a challenge to the security arrangements of our constructed sense of self and world. To be authentically present, it is necessary to both honestly understand ourselves and transcend the limitations of our self-understanding. The approach of authentic presence presented here is integrative, intertwining the insight and skillful means of psychology in the service self-understanding with that of the Dharma in the service of self-liberation.
Psychotherapy and self-understanding
Depth psychology appreciates that complicated hopes and fears live a powerful twilight existence below the threshold of awareness, exerting a pressure of disquiet from the shadows. Inevitably, unconscious impulses erupt as emotions, thoughts, words, and actions which may be at odds with what we would like to feel, think, say, and do. This everyday, divided mind is a breeding ground for compulsive coping reflexes that aim to protect, elevate, or punish a self divided from itself, others, and the natural world.
Whether a coping strategy is effective or ineffective, as it becomes more practiced it tends to congeal into a habit formation which can harden into character. Then, the divided mind mistakes the constructed character it calls ‘myself’ for the fluid intelligence that allows for the constructing – and deconstructing – of this or that kind of character. Thus confused, we imagine our ‘I’ to be a self-existing entity, rather than a mere habit of mind.
Existentially-robust therapy recognizes there is no fixed self apart from an ongoing, self-construing inner monologue. Based on this recognition, it focuses on acknowledging and loosening self-constructing fixations that are in the process of perpetuating themselves. By turning awareness around and facing how we are actually practicing a habitual emotional reaction, the mind’s inner dividedness breaks down and a vital choice point arises. A moment of being present and undistracted opens awareness to how we are unwittingly living a fraught past into an equally fraught future.
Psychotherapy works with the existential dilemma that being more open and free also means being more vulnerable, untethered, and insecure in the world. Psychological work facilitates self-acceptance that comes with self-understanding.
Dharma and self-liberation
Beyond self-acceptance is no self acceptance: opening to the wonder, and perhaps terror, that ‘I’ am not who I think I am. Neither are you who I think you are. And neither is the immensity of this world limited to how we conceive it to be. Constructs of self and world exist only in and as the play of mind. Like the wind, the sense we make of ourselves and the world – what we think of as sanity – is indeed made, and like all constructed things, it is impermanent and interdependent, having no independent existence.
The Buddha referred to the essential, evanescent nature of existence as sunyata, empty-openness. Such openness, or open suchness, is beyond the dualistic vision of the divided mind and its limiting conceptual constructs of self and other, good and bad, crazy or sane.
Unconstructed, non-conceptual awareness recognizes the natural perfection of things as they are, without needing to be improved or corrected. In relaxing the compulsive tendency to construe, predict, and control experience, intelligence naturally unfurls in undivided attunement. A moment of being authentically present, succumbing neither to itchy action nor frozen inaction, allows for the spontaneous liberation of whatever arises.
Intertwining the ways
The wisdom, compassion, and liberating power of the Dharma may be harnessed in the service of Psychology and working with others. This speaks to therapeutic art that respects the relative value of conditioned coping strategies as well as the peerless value of unconditioned presence. The more a therapist can trust being open and genuinely responsive, free from the irritability of wanting the other to change or of being a change-agent oneself, the more equanimity, kindness and incisive therapeutic responses will spontaneously arise, catalyzing both client and therapist into undivided, naturally healing presence.
On the other hand, harnessing Psychological self-understanding in the service of the Dharma is a robust support for the courage required for radical self-liberation. Being able to turn awareness inward from its outward preoccupation, orients us toward seeing that untethered openness is the true nature of that awareness. Relaxing the ambition of seeking release outside of awareness itself presents us with the challenge of settling deeper into unsettledness. Deepening our capacity for non-reactive openness enables us to swim more gracefully in the river of time.
Lingering in a space of unconstructed presence, it may be discovered that even though we seem to be traveling through space and time, we are actually neither coming nor going, there being no other place than here and no other time than now. Such radical acceptance is the nature of authentic presence.